A Visit to One of Japan’s Most Spectacular Waterfalls

Minō Park, North of Osaka, is home to one of Japan’s most spectacular waterfalls – the 33-meter (99′) Minō Falls:

Lamp Post Near Mino Falls

The falls are the park’s most famous attraction, though it’s also known as one of the best places in the Kansai Region for viewing colorful autumn foliage (momijigari). Even the manhole covers in the park demonstrate the area’s pride in its autumn leaves:

Mino Manhole

Visitors reach the falls by hiking a paved 4km trail from the park entrance. The path terminates at the falls, and takes about 45-60 minutes to walk, depending on walking speed and physical fitness. (The walk is paved the entire way, and mostly flat, so it’s suitable for walkers of all ages.) 

The paved path parallels the Minogawa (Mino River) through a beautiful forest of massive trees.

Mino Park walk (2)

A line of small restaurants near the falls provide visitors a place to stop for ice cream, snacks, or even a meal–the menu offerings include ramen, udon, and sandwiches.

Shops Near Mino Falls

The falls themselves are spectacular, and well worth the walk. (Though truthfully, the walk itself is worth a visit to Mino Park – it’s peaceful and beautiful in and of itself.)

Mino Falls

The viewing platform in front of the falls has over a dozen benches where visitors can rest and relax while watching the waterfall or enjoying a snack from the nearby restaurants. Although the platform can get crowded at certain times of day, if you visit early in the morning, seats are easy to find.

Mino Falls Closeup (Rainbow)

A gentle spray comes off the falls, creating rainbows like the one in the photograph above.

You can tell you’ve almost reached the waterfall when you see the restaurants:

Approaching Mino Falls

People sometimes bring their dogs to walk in the park – and they seem to enjoy the spray from the falls as much as people do:

Mino Park Dog

Minō Park doesn’t show up in many guidebooks or tourist websites. During my visit, most of the visitors to the park were Japanese. This might be due to an actual-or-perceived belief that foreigners care more about historical sites involving castles, temples, or other activities than sites involving scenic beauty, but if you like a nice walk in the woods (especially during foliage season) I definitely recommend Minō Park.

 

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Ninja News!

The national reviews for Betrayal at Iga have started coming in, and they’re great!

Publisher’s Weekly says: ““Spann keeps getting better, as shown by her fifth novel set in 16th-century Japan, a taut closed-circle mystery with perilous consequences…. Fans of classic whodunits will be pleased.”

The novel releases July 11 in paperback and ebook formats, and I’ve scheduled the first Sacramento-area signings:

- On July 14, I’ll be reading and signing at Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills from 6:30 until 8pm

- On July 22, I’ll be signing from 1pm-2pm at Barnes & Noble Birdcage Center in Citrus Heights from 1pm to 2pm.

If you live in the Sacramento area, I hope you’ll stop by and say hello!

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A Visit to Minoo Park (Osaka, Japan), Part 1

While planning last autumn’s research trip to Japan, I realized I’d need to spend a night in Osaka–not for research, but as an efficient jumping-off point for my three-day research trip to Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. (Koya is best-accessible via electric train and ropeway from Osaka, a journey of about 2 hours.)

I hadn’t spent much time in Osaka, but while researching ways to spend the afternoon-and-evening before my departure for Mount Koya, I discovered that I’d be just in time to sample a little-known regional delicacy that’s available only in one place for a couple of months each year: momiji tempura (tempura-fried maple leaves).

Momiji Tempura (with bag)

As it happens, the home of momiji tempura–Minō Park (also written Minoo or Minoh Park) lies just north of Osaka, about 30 minutes from the hotel I’d booked near Osaka Esaka Station. Better still, Minō Park is also known for its lovely autumn foliage, and home to one of the top-ten waterfalls in Japan (the eponymous Minō Falls).

I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an autumn afternoon, and the park and falls did not disappoint. (Nor did the momiji tempura - and I blogged about it here.)

As soon as I left the train at Mino-o Station, I started seeing vendors selling pre-packaged boxes of momiji tempura – hint to the wise: if you wait until you reach the park itself, you can buy much fresher ones, direct from vendors. Just look for the signs, like the one hanging over the doorway below:

Sign advertising Momiji no Tempura (1)

A map at the park entrance shows the popular features of Minō Park, including the 4 kilometer walk to the famous waterfall.

Map of Minoo Park (1)

The path is fairly even, and not too steep or difficult. If you can walk 4km (and there are places to rest and get a cup of tea along the way) you shouldn’t have trouble making it to the falls. If you get thirsty, consider a local specialty: yuzu cider. 

Yuzu Cider

(Yuzu is a citrus native to Japan, and specifically to the northern Osaka area. The cider is non-alcoholic, and tastes a little like sparkling lemon-lime-orangeade.)

Although the foliage had just begun to show its autumn colors the day I visited, I enjoyed the search for colorful leaves.

Trees Mino Park

The walk to the falls passes through old-growth forests filled with massive maples, pines, and cedars, and it parallels the Minō River (spoiler alert: the river’s source is the falls…). From the path, you can see a number of smaller waterfalls:

Mino Small Waterfall

And several beautiful ponds – so clear that you can see the bottom and the fish that live there.

Mino Park Pond

The walk to the falls took me a little over an hour–it might take longer, if you prefer to walk more slowly–and since I left quite early in the morning (and on a weekday), the park was not too crowded the day I visited. 

Join me Wednesday for the next stage of the walk…the waterfall!

To reach Minō Park from Shin-Osaka Station, take the Midosuji Line to Umeda Station, transfer to the Hankyu-Takarzuka Line and take the train to Ishibashi Station, where you transfer to the Hankyu-Mino Line toward Mino-o (各停). From Mino-0 Station, walk north to Mino-o Koen (Note: koen means park in Japanese).

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Using Coin Lockers in Japan

Coin lockers are a fantastic way to store suitcases and other belongings while touring or day-tripping in Japan. 

Since many hotels and ryokan have early check-out times (some, as early as 9am, though 10 or 11am is more common) and travelers may have several hours to kill before checking into the next night’s lodgings, public coin lockers are often a great way to free yourself for sightseeing during the day.

(Note: most hotels and ryokan will store baggage, free of charge, during the day before or after checkout – but sometimes it’s more convenient to store luggage at the train station, so you don’t have to return to the hotel to pick up your bags before catching a train.)

Most major (and many smaller) train and subway stations have coin lockers. Look for the sign reading “Coin Locker” – or, more commonly: コインロッカー.

The lockers themselves are normally near the center of the station, along the walls:

Coin Lockers, Osaka Eki

Prices range from ¥300 to ¥1000, depending on the station and the size of the locker selected, and the fee is good for 24 hours from the time you lock the bags in. (Note: in a few places, the lockers are only good until midnight, so make sure you check the signs if you plan to leave your luggage overnight.) 

¥500 – about $5 – is the average price for a locker that will hold both a well-stuffed backpack (academic size, not camping size) and a fairly large carry-on roller suitcase.

Osaka Locker

This is the size I use when traveling in Japan (I travel light).

They function pretty much the same as coin lockers in the United States: load the locker, put coins in the slot (be sure you have exact change), lock the locker, and take your key. The fee is a one-lock/one-open deal: if you re-open the locker, you’ll have to pay again before you can re-lock it.

Osaka Locker Closeup

Newer lockers have often eliminated the “pay at the locker” feature and moved to a kiosk system. With these, you pay for the locker at the computerized screen near the center of the locker bay, and receive a printed paper ticket with a code you use to unlock the locker when you return. Don’t lose the ticket – it’s the only way to get the locker open (without the help of an attendant – and if you don’t speak Japanese, explaining the situation can be a challenging proposition).

When using keyless lockers, I always photograph the locker I choose to ensure I don’t forget the number. If the locker is located in a large train station, I also photograph the area where the lockers are located — many stations have multiple sets of lockers, and having a photo can ensure you get back to the proper area later on.

Have you used coin lockers when traveling in Japan, or elsewhere? What tips do you have for making the process smooth?

 

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For Love of Manneken Waffles

Japanese rail and subway stations sell some of the best snack food anywhere.

Case in point: Manneken Waffles.

Manneken Waffle (in bag)

You can find Manneken Waffle shops in many of Japan’s larger cities, and most of the major train stations have a Manneken shop inside. The logo – line art of the famous Mannekin Pis statue in Brussels, seems an odd choice for a waffle shop, but considering that the statue is a well-known Belgian symbol, and the shop sells Belgian-style waffles, it’s more entertaining than weird.

Mannekin Waffle shops sell a fairly large variety of waffles, from the expected (“plain” and chocolate chip) to the unexpected–like this “grape” waffle I picked up in Kyoto station:

Manneken Grape Waffle

The shop also features monthly “specials,” with seasonal ingredients. Last October, the menu included a pumpkin waffle, which I passed on because it’s not my thing. However, November brought “caramel apple” – an apple waffle with caramel icing and a chocolate drizzle:

Manneken Caramel Waffle (BI)

Delicious in every way.

Mannekin waffles are not overly sweet. Even the caramel apple one pictured above used a sour apple dough to complement the caramel icing (which, surprisingly, wasn’t sweet enough to overpower the waffle). I expected it to be a sugar bomb, but in reality it was extremely well balanced: sour, sweet, and crispy on the outside with a tender center.

If you’re traveling in Japan, keep your eyes out for mannekin pis…a tasty waffle won’t be far away.

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To the Summit of Fushimi Inari Shrine

(To start this tour of Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine from the beginning, click here.)

The walk to the summit of Inariyama (Mount Inari) takes between 45 minutes and 2 hours, depending on your personal fitness, pace, and whether or not you choose to stop for lunch or tea along the way.

After walking up many flights of evenly spaced stone stairs, visitors finally reach the summit.

Into the Light

Don’t worry about missing it – the markers let you know.

Summit Sign Inariyama

Like many of the sub-shrines and stations along the way, the summit features a number of places where worshippers can leave offerings (like the small red torii, which are normally inscribed with the donor’s name and sometimes a prayer or request for Inari’s aid):

Summit Shrines Inariyama

or light candles:

Inariyama Summit Candles

The large summit altar features a sacred stone crowned with a tasseled rope–a familiar sight at Shintō shrines. (Out of respect for the shrine and Shintō practitioners, I don’t post photographs of the sacred stones behind the altars at major shrines–if you want to see them, visit the shrine–it’s a better experience in person anyway.) 

After spending a few minutes atop the mountain, it was time to head back down.

Descending Inariyama

The trip takes only 30-45 minutes, moving quickly (a little longer if you need to take it slow), but don’t rush the trip. The mountain is beautiful in both directions.

Most of the people I talk with say “Fushimi Inari changed me” – though many find it difficult to express exactly how. I understand, because I had the same experience the first time I visited (and every visit since).

Base of Inariyama

 

The peaceful, powerful beauty of Fushimi Inari gets inside you; visitors are often sorry to leave, and eager to return.

Inari Guardian, Inari Shrine

I know I’ll be back at the earliest opportunity – and if you find yourself in Japan, I hope you take the time to visit, too.

 

 

 

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Wordspring Weekend!

This afternoon (Friday, April 28), I’m heading north to Chico, California, to teach at the Wordspring Writers’ Conference, sponsored by the English Department at Butte College.

I’ll be teaching two workshops:

Writing a Killer Mystery (the A-to-Z of writing a page-turning mystery) 

Putting the History in Your Mystery (or “Writing historical mysteries that don’t get lost in the details!”)

If you’re in the northern California area, and not busy Saturday (April 29), click over and check out all the information about the Wordspring Conference – I’d love to see you there!

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The Mountain Subshrines of Fushimi Inari

(To start this series from the beginning, click here.)

Station 17 Fushimi Inari Taisha (2)

Visitors who climb the slopes of Fushimi Inari Taisha (shrine) pass through thousands of vermilion torii and climb many flights of stairs, but the journey to the summit features more than steps and gates. Numerous sub-shrines line the slopes, many with teahouses and restauarants as well as shrines, offering visitors a chance to stop for rest and refreshment as well as offerings and prayers.

The stations are marked with hanging signs and lanterns that not only identify the stations by number and name, but let visitors know how far they have to walk (in either direction–up or down) to reach the next one.

Station 17 Marker, Fushimi Inari

Although each station is unique, most feature large and small shrines:

Station 17 Shrine

Guardian statues (usually kitsune – the foxlike messengers of Inari) :

Station 17 Fushimi Inari Taisha (1)

And places for worshippers to leave offerings (like the small red torii in these photos, each of which is an offering for Inari) or burn candles.

Fushimi Inari Subshrine

Some of the stations, like #17, also feature purification fountains.

Dragon Fountain (Station 17)

Purification is an important part of Shintō worship; visitors are supposed to use the dipper to cleanse their hands and mouths (by spilling water into the hand and raising it to the lips – you never put your mouth directly on the dipper) before approaching the holy place to pray.

Dragon Purification Fountain

Shintō purification fountains often feature sculptures, like the dragon at Station 17 on Fushimi Inari. Since dragons are traditionally associated with water (and weather) in Japan, they’re common subjects for purification fountains.

Dragon Fountain Detail

After a stop to pray, refresh, and rest, it’s time to continue up the mountain – and when this series resumes on Friday, we’ll finally reach the summit of Mount Inari.

Into the Light

If Friday has already come and gone, click here to continue the journey!

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Stopping for Lunch At Fushimi Inari Shrine

(Click here to start this blog series on Fushimi Inari Shrine from the beginning.)

Fushimi Inari’s famous gates continue all the way up the mountain.

Fushimi Inari Gates (Best)

Over a dozen “stations,” consisting of sub-shrines, restaurants, and teahouses line the mountain’s slopes, offering visitors a place to stop and pray, leave offerings, or rest and enjoy a cup of tea or a snack along the way. 

Gates and Restaurant

My favorite place to stop sits about halfway up Mount Inari, at a crossroads where a lovely traditional restaurant welcomes guests and offers amazing views of Kyoto:

Kyoto From Inariyama Crossroads

The interior of the restaurant is just as special as the view. It’s built in the traditional style, with raised seating areas and Japanese-style tables:

Restaurant on Inariyama

Here’s another view:

Restaurant Panoramic

Like many restaurants in Japan, the menu offerings change wth the seasons–but my favorite dish, inarizushi, remains on the menu all year round.

Inarizushi

Reputed to be a favorite of the kami Inari as well as his kitsune messengers (kitsune are shape-changing spirits that often appear in the form of a fox–hence the fox statues that populate Fushimi Inari and other Inari shrines)inarizushi consists of sweet sushi rice and black sesame wrapped in fried tofu skin:

Inarizushi (1)

It might sound offputting, if you’re not used to tofu (or haven’t had it prepared this way) but I promise, the dish appeals to even the pickiest Western palates. It’s delicious!

The pink slivers on the side of the plate are pickled ginger. Tsukemono (pickled vegetables) are a part of almost every Japanese meal. The type and color varies to complement the dishes served. In the case of inarizushi, pickled ginger is often the go-to choice–which I love, because pickled ginger is one of my favorites.

Fushimi Inari Subshrine

After lunch and a cup of tea, it’s time to hit the trail again for the next leg of our journey up the mountain. Click here for the next installment!

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The Cats of Fushimi Inari

Like many Japanese shrines and temples, Fushimi Inari Taisha, south of Kyoto, has its share of resident cats.

Although not numerous, the cats appear to be permanent residents of the shrine, and though some, like this little fellow:

Fushimi Inari Kitten

 clearly belong to the people who run the teahouses dotting the slopes of Mount Inari, others–like this one I met near the bottom of Inariyama last November:

Fushimi Inari Cat (1)

seem to live on the mountain itself. That said, unlike most feral cats, the residents of Fushimi Inari seemed eager for human attention. The handsome tuxedo in the photo above followed me along the path, meowing insistently, until I stopped to pet him.

A group of visitors gathered behind me, pointing at the cat, and as soon as I left him they moved in to take my place.

When I left to continue my climb, the cat was surrounded by happy people, purring loudly and splayed out on his side to maximize the petting he could receive.

While it’s always wise to act cautiously around strange or feral animals, many of the cats of Fushimi Inari seem only too happy to receive any attention visitors want to give. According to legend, some of them might not actually be cats at all . . . Japanese legends say that Inari’s messenger foxes are shapeshifters, capable of assuming human or other animal forms at will.

Fushimi Inari Cat

Which means that, maybe, the animal I met on the path was not a cat at all… 

 

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